The year the tree trimmer gave the commencement address at Yale

Yale commencement speaker

Curtis Dahlgren    5/14/22 [adapted from my 5-24-18 column.]

Y”ALL probably wonder what I’m doing up here, eh? Well, all the invited speakers got rejected by the cancel culture, and I said I could fill in today and Yale was really hard up for a speaker, so here we are. I want to open with a quotation by Al McGuire, coach of the Marquette Warriors (if I can say that):

“I think everyone should go to college . .  and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cab driver. Then they would really be educated. 

Ironically, many of y’all will be tending bar or driving a cab after all this “pomp and circumstance.” You have dumped tons of filthy lucre into your “education,” but some of you still don’t know what you want to DO with your life. That’s why I’m here. The title of this little chat is “Get out of the house and climb a tree or something.” The subtitle is “If you already have a job lined up, are you SURE that’s what you really want to do with the rest of your life?

What I have here is a little book that was written over a hundred years ago by a housewife in the northwestern part of the country. The cover is long gone, but the binding is mostly holding together, so I’m going to read a few  paragraphs. It starts out like this, quote:

I always laugh when I think of Agnes, the child of long lines of professorial people, early slated for more of the same thing. But Agnes hated Greek, loathed Latin, and as for higher mathematics, she wasn’t there at all. She failed in college after college until a family member asked her a dumb question:

“Well Agnes, what do you want to do?” and Agnes said she “wanted to cook.”

Poor child, no one in her family had ever had to cook, but when her shocked parents recovered, they offered to send her to a school for “Household Arts” (which was once called Homemaking 101). If you want to see Agnes today, you’ll have to go to one of the fanciest tea-rooms in the country, where she’s responsible for feeding hundreds of people every day. And Agnes loves it.

We cannot afford to divide ourselves into two compartments, one for work and one for pleasure. Our work must be our pleasure! The quality we put into our work is too sensitively affected by our attitude toward it, and the reaction on ourselves is too intense for such a division to be other than highly injurious to both. We must do the work that is a pleasure to do, the work that – even if it wears us to the bone – provides a joyous wearing.

And no matter how dimly obscured your gift is, or how humble its first employment, if you work from it as a starting point, you will soon have a song in your heart.

A true dealer in music will catch the liquid notes of a lark or the swishing sounds of a falling brook.

But when we traffic in someone else’s business, what contribution does the common day make? You’ve taken up music because the family urged it, but off in the country do you revel in a lark’s notes or a babbling brook? Not a bit; you’re engrossed in a new barn and wondering about the construction of the rounding roof. We need carpenters too, you know. I heard about an English professor who gave up his tenure to go into climbing trees. Which brings me to the personal part of this story:

I was born to raise hay, growing up on a dairy farm that had the babbling brook, the singing birds, and also the “joyous work” that makes for a good night’s sleep. But between milking cows or driving a tractor, I never had time to climb a tree. My family had expectations, quite rationally, that I would stay on the farm and keep the herd together. The problem was, I won two college scholarships and felt obligated to use at least a part of the providence. The main thing I wanted to “learn” is whether this country boy from out in the middle of nowhere could keep up with the city boys at the University we called Berkeley East. I also attended a small Christian college that we called a college for small Christians.

But a funny thing happened on my way to a degree. I needed a summer job if I were to afford another year of college (we didn’t have Pell grants or government loans in those days), and the only job I could find was working for a tree expert company. The pay was $1.75 an hour and they sent you up a tree as soon as you got to the first job site.

At that moment I knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life, herd or no herd, scholarships or not! So I became an arborist by profession and did some writing on the side. 

An aspiring artist once was heard bragging about his future. A wet blanket told him, “I see no such gift in you,” and the young art student says:

“It isn’t important that you should – only that I DO!” And he was right.

Which brings me back to this century-old book: “You’ve cold-bloodedly decided to become an artist, as artists run in your blood, and it’s expected, but freed from the studio, do you see colour everywhere? NO. You see that there are fine truck gardening opportunities in a neighboring bottom-land – if only the ‘family’ wouldn’t have a fit over a truck gardener in its midst – a FARMER! [end quote].

WELL, that’s my address, but I want to conclude with some words written by the president of your school, Yale University.

“Your ancestors, who leaned on the arm of God and walked in the sunshine of the Scriptures, laid here such foundations of human happiness under His guidance as were probably never laid elsewhere. In their establishment of rational freedom and just government, in their schools and their colleges, in their churches and their worship, in their exemplary life and their fervent prayers, they left a glorious inheritance to you.

“On this stock you have lived and become rich, and the fund, though impaired by waste and negligence, is still large, Wantonly squandered it may vanish in a year, but carefully husbanded it may last for ages. Would you provide for your children as your ancestors provided for you?

“Would you secure the favor and blessings of God? Would you escape the woes, denounced and executed on an unbelieving and profligate world? Then at the fireside, in the street, in the court of justice and in the legislature, BE AND BE SEEN TO BE THE FRIENDS AND FOLLOWERS OF GOD . . .

“If you contend manfully you will be more than conquerors; if you yield, both you and your children are undone. Let me at the same time warn you that your enemies are numerous, industrious and daring, full of subtlety and zeal. Some of them are your own brethren, endeared to you by all the ties of nature. The contest is therefore fraught with hazard and alarm.

“Were it a war of arms you would have little to dread, but it is a war of arts, of temptations, of enchantments, a war against the magicians of Egypt, in which no weapons will prevail but Moses’ ‘rod of God.’ Fear not; the Christian world rises daily in prayer to heaven. The host of sleeping saints calls to you from the grave and bids you Godspeed. May you and your children to a thousand generations rise and call YOU blessed.”

P.S. Those are the words of Timothy Dwight, Yale president from 1795 to 1817, spoken on January 7, 1801 from a pulpit. He was also the pastor of the campus church. It’s an example of the way one man’s words sparked a “revolution” – the Second Great Awakening of the United States (quoted in DECISION magazine, September 1961).

If such words were spoken at an Ivy League commencement this year, would the Yalies be able to make heads or tails of them?

PSS: May America wake up and have a great Memorial Day this year.

Picture credit: Yale News

Curtis Dahlgren

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About the Author

Curtis Dahlgren
Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in the frozen tundra of Michigan's U.P., and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton. In the intro to The Fenton Bible, Fenton said: ​"I was in '53 a young student in a course of education for an entirely literary career, but with a wider basis of study than is usual. . . . In commerce my life has been passed. . . . Indeed, I hold my commercial experience to have been my most important field of education, divinely prepared to fit me to be a competent translator of the Bible, for it taught me what men are and upon what motives they act, and by what influences they are controlled. Had I, on the other hand, lived the life of a Collegiate Professor, shut up in the narrow walls of a library, I consider that I should have had my knowledge of mankind so confined to glancing through a 'peep-hole' as to make me totally unfit for [my life's work]." ​In 1971-72 Curtis did some writing for the Badger Herald and he is listed as a University of Wisconsin-Madison "alumnus" (loosely speaking, along with a few other drop-outs including John Muir, Charles Lindbergh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Dick Cheney). [He writes humor, too.]